Gathering In, Sending Out, Isaiah 6:1-8
First United Methodist Church, February 10, 2019
Pastor Toni Carmer
Sometimes it happens. You don’t ask for it, you don’t plan for it, you don’t expect it. It may happen in the midst of something pretty ordinary. You experience it in a new way, hear it in a new way, believe in a new way. And you walk away changed.
That’s what happened to Isaiah.
It happened the year King Uzziah died. Uzziah, or Azariah as he’s sometimes called (which means “I saw”), reigned over Judah 52 years—through those years of his leadership the people experienced relative independence and prosperity. Some would say that his accomplishments: his military decisions, his building campaigns, his social reform—made him second only to the great King Solomon. But Uzziah crossed boundaries more than once, worshiping and burning incense in the temple, which was the role of a priest, not a king. Some believed the leprosy he contracted was a result of that disobedience. Because of his leprosy, the Book of Chronicles tells us that he lived in a house separate from the king’s palace, and was excluded from the temple in his final years of life. His son Jotham had charge of the palace during this time, and he was the one who ruled the people of Judah until Uzziah’s death. Jotham then followed his father as king.
This began a period of political turmoil. Not only was there anxiety related to the transition of leadership from a long-standing—if not always wise—king, to his unproven and less popular son, but there were threats from the outside, as well, as the Assyrian army continued to expand their empire, swallowing whole the neighbors who surrounded their nation. The people of Judah couldn’t help but wonder when their country would be invaded as well, their homes and culture trampled and their people cast out in exile.
Isaiah son of Amoz was apparently a part of the privileged class of Jerusalem, because of his ease of access to the centers of power. His presence in the area of the temple normally restricted to priests might indicate that he was a part of the priesthood. The setting of the event that Isaiah describes in chapter 6 is believed to be an annual religious drama that was conducted in the temple. Known as the Enthronement Celebration (described in several Psalms, including 47, 93, and 96-99), it depicted the return of the Divine King to his temple as victor over the forces of evil where he would be crowned king, creator and judge of his people.
This time as Isaiah watched, he saw it in a new way. In a different way. The drama came alive for him as it never had before. He saw the Lord seated on his throne, he saw the awesomeness, the majesty of God as God’s garment filled the temple. Isaiah saw the seraphs (which were heavenly beings, thought to be similar to the living creatures also mentioned in Chapter 4 of the Book of Revelation). He felt the air move as they flew, he heard them calling to one another, announcing the Lord of Hosts: “Holy, Holy, Holy is the Lord of Hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory!” He felt the room tremble, he saw and breathed in the smoke that filled the room. And he was so overwhelmed, so moved, so awed by the experience, that he responded in a way that I think is not so unexpected: he stood back and realized how small/how limited/how inadequate he was. “I am nothing,” he says. “I am no one, and yet I have the seen the King, the lord of hosts!”
I think of other people in the Bible who responded to the Holy in a similar way: Jeremiah when called to be a prophet, “How can this be, I’m only a boy?”
Zechariah, when the angel appeared, telling him he would be the father of John the Baptist. “How can this be, I’m an old man!”
Of Mary, the mother of Jesus, who rejoiced. “How can this be? God has looked with favor upon the lowliness of his servant…”
They’re humbled. Amazed. Overcome by God’s presence.
“I am a man of unclean lips,” Isaiah says, “and I live in a land of unclean people.”
One of the seraphs immediately responds by lifting a live coal from the altar with a pair of tongs, and flying to Isaiah, touches his mouth and says, “Now that this has touched your lips, your guilt has departed and your sin blotted out.”
Then Isaiah hears the Lord speaking, not specifically to him, but asking, “Whom shall I send? Who will go for us?”
Isaiah responds: “Here am I. Send me.”
It is an amazing, unexpected moment.
I like where the text ends today. All these amazing things happen and Isaiah responds, Here I am, send me. Sounds like a great message for a song, doesn’t it? Let’s just sing it and go home. But there’s more to the story. There is a heavy word in the verses that follow. After he is called and responds, Isaiah is sent by God to deliver a hard word to God’s people. They’ve turned away, they’ve refused to listen, they’ve been a stubborn and stiff-necked people. So this is what God tells Isaiah to do, to say to the people after he has experienced this incredible spiritual moment:
Keep listening, but do not comprehend; keep looking but do not understand. Make the mind of this people dull, and stop their ears, and shut their eyes, so that they may not look with their eyes, and listen with their ears, and comprehend with their minds, and turn and be healed.
Oh, my, I’m thinking that was kind of unexpected. Isaiah must have been thinking, Really, God, this is what I’m supposed to do? Well, thank you very much! I’ve always wanted to be the cause of the ruin of many, the thorn in the sides of my people, to announce doom and gloom at parties near the chips and salsa. Who wouldn’t want to be this person?
And so the next question that comes from Isaiah is understandable. “How long?” Clearly, he could use a word of encouragement. Surely, God will say, not so long, not forever…a few months maybe? But this is how God replies:
Until cities lie waste without inhabitant, and houses without people, and the land is utterly desolate; until the Lord sends everyone far away, and vast is the emptiness in the midst of the land. Even if a tenth part remain in it, it will be burned again, like a terebinth or an oak whose stump remains standing when it is felled. The holy seed is its stump.
Isaiah is being called by God in this moment to a life of service, but it’s not one that will bring peace and joy and satisfaction. Isaiah will deliver difficult words in a difficult time. They will be God’s word of truth; words meant to bring down that which stands in the way of God’s will and God’s way for God’s people. Words that will make a way for God’s light to shine on them.
At the end, there is a word of hope. It’s quiet, but it’s there… Did you hear it? The holy seed is its stump. When it’s all come down, the Holy seed will grow, it will flourish.
We can’t help but wonder how Isaiah will have the strength to do what God is calling him to do.
Do you remember the seraph? The seraph brought the burning coals to Isaiah’s lips, touched them, and make him clean and whole. Isaiah sees God, recognizes his own inadequacies, is forgiven, delivered and made whole. He encounters God and he is changed, because he has experienced God’s majesty, God’s forgiveness, and God’s grace. He’s changed and he’ll never be the same again. Now, he’s ready to serve. He becomes one of the greatest of the prophets, who speaks God’s word to a troubled, corrupt, and sinful society.
So, what does all this have to say to us? Here are a couple of possibilities:
First, are we willing to risk real encounters with the living God, or do we just gather together to go through the motions of a religious drama? This is a big deal and is important for us to figure out. Annie Dillard said if people realized they were coming into the presence of the living God, they would put seatbelts on the pews and wear crash helmets. Ushers would distribute life preservers and signal flares, because God is liable to turn our lives and world upside down. God does that, you know? So, will we be people who risk having moments with the living God? Who will risk doing and being who God calls us to do and to be?
Secondly, it seems to me that one of the things we tend to do is to reduce God to something/someone who we can understand. We may not mean to, but we begin to form God into our image. We start thinking that God rubber-stamps what we’re thinking and doing. But this text is a reminder that God is so much bigger and beyond what we can see and know and understand. Our task is to listen for God’s word and to align ourselves to God’s desires, rather than attempting to shape God’s desires for our world into what we want and what we feel comfortable with.
It can be a hard listening for, and following God’s way. Isaiah discovered that doing what God sent him to do wasn’t easy. It can shake us up—the way we live, the decisions we make, the way we spend our money, the way we relate to other people, the way we love other people…but on the other side, there is a better and deeper life. God’s hard word can recreate us into a new people.
Our world still needs prophets: courageous souls who are willing to deliver the word of God. It’s a risky and dangerous business that doesn’t promise comfort and success. Still, it is vital work, necessary work for what God wills for our world. We’re not all called to be prophets, but we are all called to listen. Are you listening for that word? Are you willing to go forth and do what God has called you to do?